It was May 17, the Wednesday following the Minnesota fishing opener. Rich, Mark and I had rendezvoused the day before at my cabin outside of Ely, Minnesota. That Wednesday morning we set out on another canoe trip into the Quetico-Superior country. A spring canoe trip has become a tradition for various friends and me over the last three decades. As years have passed and we have grown older, our ambitions have been faced with the reality of our physical condition. The mileage has dwindled, but the enthusiasm has not. This year our destination was the Quetico side of Basswood Lake. The route included five portages and approximately four hours of paddling.
I have learned over the years to discuss my canoe trip plans with locals in Ely who are deep in experience concerning routes, campsites and fishing holes. My reconnaissance this year had identified an excellent base camp on the North Bay of Basswood. The weather in May is unpredictable and can be punishing. It’s best to think about the possibility of frigid north winds and also prevalent west winds travelling over 40-degree water before impacting a campsite. Once at the campsite, one should consider where the fire pit is situated. Will the fire be exposed to prevailing west winds or north winds? A campsite can often make the difference between a wonderful experience and an endurance contest.
Our trip began with little fanfare. We were greeted with light north winds as we left Prairie Portage and headed west down our largest exposure on Basswood Lake, which is notorious for strong westerlies and big rollers. Paddling on lakes with 40-degree water should not be taken lightly. Safety is of utmost importance. We headed north into Bailey Bay and crossed the portage into Burke Lake. Light rain began to fall. The temperature was a relatively warm 60 degrees. I have often felt that traveling in the rain is preferable to staying in camp. The conditions were quite comfortable.
As we entered North Bay, the north wind stiffened to 15-to 20-miles-per-hour gusts. Although we did not have a long way to go, our destination had us paddling straight upwind. The next hour or so was a grind. All paddlers can relate to this. If mankind has one common denominator, it is hatred of a headwind. We arrived at our campsite for a late lunch, thankful that its orientation faced south, protecting us from the north wind. Friends in Ely had advised us well. This campsite was perfectly situated for the weather conditions.
We were greeted to a pleasant surprise at the fire pit. There was a good stack of bucked, but not split, white cedar. It appeared to be enough wood to get us through a couple of meals. The only problem was that it was still raining and everything was wet. North winds meant dropping temperatures. As the afternoon progressed the temperature steadily declined. It was going to be a cold night--a good fire was comforting. After setting up our tents we divided the responsibilities of organizing the cooking area, finding kindling and splitting wood.
The wet conditions were going to make it challenging to start a fire. Having seen such circumstances before, we got out our pocketknives and began shaving some of the cedar that Mark and Rich had split. Patience is extremely important when attempting to start a fire in soggy surroundings. I always bring some paper towels with me. I find them very useful when cooking. In this case, we put a flat rock on top of the wet ashes and placed a crumpled paper towel on the rock. The dry cedar shavings were placed on the paper towel followed by a layer of very thin, dead branches. It was not long before we had a good enough fire to begin drying the bark of the split cedar that was to be burned subsequently.
When we were younger these trips were all about how many miles we could paddle. These days the mileage just isn’t important. Now we prefer base camping. This was to be our base camp for the next five days. By dinner, the rain was diminishing to a light mist. The weatherman had predicted improving conditions for the next few days with rain returning for our paddle back to Prairie Portage. The conversation over supper turned to our plans for the next day. We would stick fairly close to camp, fishing the North Bay.
Thursday dawned with much cooler temperatures in the upper 30s. Skies had lightened and most importantly the rain had stopped. We were confident that we would not see rain with the stiff north winds continuing. We were anticipating a good day of fishing.
Fishing in May is my favorite time of year in the Quetico-Superior country. In May it is possible to catch lake trout near the surface. Lake trout are only found in deep, clear, cold, oxygenated oligotrophic lakes. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park are famous for its pristine, sky blue waters. The border lakes of Minnesota and Ontario are about as far south as one will find these lakers. Farther south, water temperatures are too high and lakes lack the oxygen to support lake trout. It is this scarcity value that makes lake trout fishing special. The lake trout represents true wilderness to me.
Thursday morning Rich and I were fishing in my 18-foot Bell Northwinds canoe. Mark was paddling a Wenonah Canak, a hybrid canoe/kayak suited for solo wilderness tripping. The three of us are paddlers more than fishermen. Therefore, our preferred method of fishing is to troll the shorelines with crank baits until we find a hot spot. Not too long after leaving camp and paddling through a channel, Rich had a solid strike. As the fish tired, the excitement grew when we saw one near the boat. It was a substantial laker, and we were eager to get it in the net. Soon the fish was landed. It measured 32 inches, suggesting about a 12-pound fish. The photograph of Rich and his fish says it all. A lake trout is a beautiful fish. Catching and releasing such a large aquatic denizen is the essence of a wilderness experience.
As many of you know, a large Chilean mining company named Antofagasta has proposed to develop a mammoth copper mine adjacent to the Kawishiwi River south of Ely. Hard-rock mining, which includes sulfide-ore copper mining, is considered the most toxic, most polluting industry in the world. Copper is found in sulfide rock. If mined, more than 99 percent of the rock will be left on the land's surface as vast piles of sulfide bearing waste-rock. When this waste-rock is exposed to air and water, it generates sulfuric acid. This sulfuric acid leaches heavy metals from the wate-rock as it leaks from mine sites into nearby bodies of water. A combination of acid, water and heavy metals is known as acid mine drainage, and it changes the pH of waters it enters by increasing its acidity. Scientific studies have shown that the lakes of the Boundary Waters have low acid-neutralizing capicity, making them particularly vulnerable to acid mine drainage. It is predicted that the development of copper mining next the BWCAW will have devastating effects on aquatic life in down stream lakes. Basswood Lake is downstream from the proposed mining complex and in the path of pollution. As I look at the fish in this picture and the human response of catching such a magnificent fish, I ask if it is worth the price of polluting this great wilderness for the benefit of a few jobs and a large profit for a foreign mining giant.
Dodd Cosgrove is a board member for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. Cosgrove first paddled the Boundary Waters in 1964, one month before it gained official designation as a Wilderness area. Retired after 30 years working as a Chartered Financial Analyst, he has served on multiple boards, including The Quetico-Superior Foundation and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, at times serving as treasurer for both. For the last 19 years he and his family have owned a cabin on Little Long Lake and all of his children have been campers at a YMCA camp near the Boundary Waters.